If you take a look at the winners of the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance, one song will stick out. Among a ton of big hits, you’ll see Lady Gaga’s “Joanne (Where Do You Think You’re Goin’).” The piano rendition of one of Gaga’s most underrated song stands as the only winner to not chart in the top two of the Billboard Hot 100.
The frontrunners were two songs by other female pop stars that year. Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman,” the second single off her fourth album “Sweetener,” led the Gold Derby odds. Perhaps Grande should’ve submitted her lead single “No Tears Left to Cry,” which was a bigger hit than “God is a Woman” and might have been more emotionally compelling due to its uplifting message following the bombing of her Manchester Arena concert in 2017. Still, since most people were predicting Grande to win Best Pop Vocal Album (which she did), many thought the love for her would extend to Pop Solo Performance.
Grande had also just released her first number-one hit, “Thank U, Next,” which garnered the biggest hype and acclaim of her career. This could’ve been a bit of a mixed blessing; while it definitely helped “Sweetener,” many voters might’ve thought that “God is a Woman” wasn’t the right submission, whether they, like the general public, preferred “No Tears Left to Cry” or they incorrectly thought “Thank U, Next” should’ve been submitted, even though it wasn’t eligible until the following year. “God is a Woman” could’ve upset some more religious voters as well.
The other frontrunner was Camila Cabello, who was having a banner year with her debut solo album, “Camila.” The album contained multiple hits, but Cabello chose to submit the live, solo rendition of “Havana” to the category. The original version had been submitted and snubbed the year prior since it hadn’t peaked commercially by the time that voting had taken place in the fall of 2017. But many were still predicting “Havana (Live)” because the original song was quite easily the biggest hit in its lineup.
Live versions also don’t show any signs of being weaker in pop categories, with many winners being live versions of previous releases including Pharrell Williams‘s “Happy (Live),” Adele‘s “Set Fire To The Rain (Live),” and Train‘s “Hey Soul Sister (Live).” In fact, when artists submit live versions, it’s usually because the original songs were submitted before they peaked in popularity so a new submission had a great chance at winning. As a result, many thought Camila’s strong year and the song’s clear commercial advantage would be enough for her to win.
So how did Gaga win? Late 2018 Lady Gaga was truly a media phenomenon. Due to the release of her musical film “A Star Is Born,” Gaga was doing heavy Oscar campaigning. This could’ve helped her a lot; voters like to be reminded of an artist’s presence, and both the film and the soundtrack were released to critical and commercial love. Perhaps another big advantage was the massive love for “Shallow,” her duet with Bradley Cooper which many considered an instant classic upon release. The song won Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, so clearly voters were feeling it.
More importantly, pop voters love rewarding their longtime favorites, and Lady Gaga has been perhaps the most consistent pop field nominee besides Adele. Finally, Grammy voters were probably better acquainted with “Joanne” than the general public were. The heartfelt piano ballad was performed at the Grammys a year earlier, and its parent album of the same name got a Best Pop Vocal Album nomination. The song was also a big part of Gaga’s documentary, “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” and was integral to a very emotional scene in it.
The two front-runners might also have hurt each other. Both were big hits by young female pop stars, so a lot of younger voters might’ve been divided between the two, leaving older voters to go for Lady Gaga, especially for such an accessible, sentimental song. Overall, Lady Gaga’s presence in the media and voters’ familiarity and fondness for her were just enough to pull off one of the most impressive Grammy upsets in recent years. Plus the win made her album “Joanne” an official Grammy winner, making all her albums except for “Artpop” Grammy winners in at least one category. Not too bad Gaga, not too bad.
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